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Public engagement 3: What now?

The current environment has seen a dramatic shift in the public attitudes to science and scientists, and has shown the importance of science engagement programmes. Hassun El-Zafar, our Public Engagement Officer, is wondering about the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public engagement. Share your thoughts with Hassun via email at or on Twitter @HassunElZafar.

At 2am I wake up to have my pre-sunrise breakfast and prepare for my 16 hour-long fast for Ramadan. For billions of people across the globe Ramadan marks a time of community, solidarity and reflection. This year feels much stranger than any other; we are experiencing Ramadan under lockdown, which means family gatherings are not happening, evening meals with friends are cancelled, annual charity fundraising initiates cannot take place and community hubs like mosques across the world are closed.

One of the most remarkable things I’ve learned from this Ramadan is that despite the odds, the essence and spirit of Ramadan has been more alive than ever. My family have found creative ways of staying in touch with each other – most impressively, my Grandma learnt how to video call me every day without any assistance, a remarkable feat. Friends have taken it upon themselves to host weekly zoom quizzes, in which I’ve learned things about them I’d never known before. Local fundraisers and campaigners have started incredible local covid-19 community support groups, with numerous examples of community hubs becoming makeshift food banks, shelters and crisis alleviation centres.

Over the last few months some unprecedented (yep, I used that word…) things have taken place. The covid-19 pandemic has changed the public engagement landscape. That change is here, whether we like it or not. And just like Ramadan, an entire community needs to find new, creative and pioneering ways to keep the spirit and impact of public engagement activities alive.

Public engagement in science is now more important than ever, it is not mere coincidence that the communities most affected by the covid-19 pandemic globally are also the same communities that have been continually underserved and underrepresented within science engagement programmes. We must ask, what is the purpose of our public engagement if we cannot reach those who need it the most? What changes must we make to do this? How can we share practise across the sector?

Here at the Royal Society of Chemistry, we’ve already adapted our funding model to help organisations and individuals do exactly this. We created a rolling Outreach Fund application process and I’ll be curating a series of online webinars over the next few months to help share best practise and ideas across the sector. As ever, I’m always up for hearing your ideas of how public engagement can be done in our new circumstances to!

Stay safe and well, I’ll end this blog with a quote from my childhood reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which I found incredibly fitting for the circumstances we find ourselves:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

This is our third blog article from Hassun, you can read the others in the series here:
  1. Know Your Audience
  2. Co-Create, Co-Create, Co-Create
Posted by Aurora Walshe on Jun 1, 2020 1:30 PM Europe/London

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